President Obama called for strengthening Social Security in his 2016 State of the Union address. In choosing the verb "strengthen," he dodged taking a position within the Democratic Party's increasingly central debate over expansion of Social Security. Had he chosen "expand" rather than "strengthen," he would have sided with Bernie Sanders and other progressives. By stopping short of expand with strengthen, he placed himself either with Hillary Clinton's hedging of the issue or in a state of ambiguity. One can be sure that his speechwriters, vetters, and himself chose the word carefully.
This was not just semantic quibbling over election-time rhetoric. Behind it lies a fight in the Democratic Party mirrored in the Hillary vs. Bernie primary race over whether to continue to compromise with Republican regressive domestic policies or to return forcefully to the New Deal legacy of which building on the success of Social Security is key. What to do with Social Security -- to trim it back or build it up more -- is one of the litmus tests that divide the progressive from the corporate wings of the party. Strengthen and expand in these contexts are code words for the politics of Social Security.
Calling for strengthening, as the president did, is a non-position. Enemies and proponents of the program alike use the term by now. Even Republicans claim to want to strengthen Social Security -- by reducing its benefits, mainly through raising the retirement age. Because Social Security, as virtually all polling indicates, is enormously popular with all demographics, even Republican voters -- though not their candidates, Social Security's enemies have learned to call their proposals to weaken or destroy the program proposals to strengthen it.
Two years ago Social Security backers, led by the advocacy organization Social Security Works, moved from defense to offense, from protecting the program from privatization and benefit cut proposals to mounting proposals to increase and develop new types of benefits, including paid family leave. At the same time they shifted from calling for protecting, defending, or strengthening Social Security to expanding it.
Obama has been a weak defender of Social Security. He took office in 2009 with a "grand bargain" strategy to sacrifice a part of Social Security for Republican support for needed tax increases. He appointed two prominent enemies of Social Security, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, to head a reform commission. The commission's regressive proposals, among other things, would have transformed Social Security from a cross class (including middle class) earned benefit to increasingly a welfare program to benefit just the poor. That would have undermined its middle class political support which has been crucial to its survival. The proposals failed to attain enough support from commission members to be forwarded to Congress for enactment and Social Security, as we know it, survived. After the failure of Simpson-Bowles, Obama supported reducing Social Security's cost of living adjustment which died after massive public opposition.
Obama could have used his last State of the Union address to atone for his past actions, but he didn't. He instead hid behind the ambiguous "strengthen" language. At least he didn't endorse or propose new efforts to weaken the program. That in itself may be a victory for the expansion campaign.